We’re Going About It Backwards

california_academy_of_sciences_san_francisco_2013_-_16Like so many other things, the Church swings and sways on a pendulum, shifting from one extreme to the next in our effort to follow the path of truth our God set down for us in His word. The Reformation, for example, was a correction that brought the pendulum swinging back to the belief in grace and forgiveness, not law and rule keeping.

Another clear shift came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the social gospel replaced the fire-and-brimstone emphases of the Great Awakening preachers.

The Social Gospel movement emerged among Protestant Christians to improve the economic, moral and social conditions of the urban working class. (“The Social Gospel Movement: Definition and Goals of Urban Reform Movements”)

And much needed to be improved in both America and other western civilizations. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the urban poor were a growing population. How did the Church respond? First, there was no unified approach to the changes in society. Protestants didn’t even agree with one another, let alone with Catholics. Two factions formed among Protestants, the one

focused on saving individual souls; in revivals in the rapidly expanding cities, they attempted to get people to turn away from their own sins and to embrace personal salvation. The [other] party focused on the sins of society, such as poverty and inequality, and asked people to seek salvation through building “the Kingdom of God on this earth.” Through the 1880s and 1890s, the [former] raced ahead of the [latter] in popularity and public appeal.

Each of the groups was evangelical, meaning that they drew their message from the Bible, and each of them focused on redemption. But their objects of concern were very different. (“The Social Gospel And The Progressive Era”)

Around the turn of the century the pendulum swung toward those focused on correcting the sins of society. Organizations arose and articles were written.

But two world wars and a Great Depression doused the hope that society was self-correcting and the injustices of capitalism were stemmed. The pendulum swung again, back toward personal salvation.

Now we find ourselves in another shift. The pendulum is moving again toward the remedy for societal ills. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we’re reminded. And we are the “hands and feet of Jesus,” we’re informed. In the past we aimed to carry the gospel to foreign lands but neglected our own urban poor.

These are all true, and the swinging pendulum does, perhaps, need to move back toward the center. But there’s one major problem. We seem to be leaving out the most important component, the first and greatest command, Jesus called it: we are to love the Lord our God with our whole being.

Before we are to take the gospel across the ocean or across the street, before we are to volunteer at the homeless shelter or donate to the fund for Haiti, we are to love God.

Deuteronomy expands the response we’re to have to God by adding “fear Him”—that is, have an awe, a reverence for Him. Throughout the book, God’s people, newly escaped from Egypt, were instructed in God’s ways. They repeatedly received instruction to pay attention to their relationship with God, and then to go about serving and obeying.

They weren’t to serve and to obey first. They were to love and to fear first. But here’s the key:

Loving God and obeying His commandments don’t happen because we try harder. Loving God is a response to His first loving us. Obeying God is a demonstration of our love for Him. The elements are entwined, and we confuse the issue when we try to separate one strand from the others.

Or if we forget which is the greatest command. (“The FIRST Commandment Is To Love God”)

In other words, loving God isn’t something we can isolate from obeying Him. Obeying God isn’t something we can isolate from loving Him. Or that we can put ahead of loving Him.

In short, there ought not be a swinging pendulum. We should not over emphasize personal salvation more than serving our neighbors. Unfortunately we’re in a period of time that threatens to de-emphasize salvation in favor of caring for the physical needs of those less fortunate than we are.

One ought not exclude the other. Neither should be emphasized at the expense of the other. Both are necessary to fulfill God’s commandments. We love God and then we serve Him. We fear God and then we obey Him.

How can we love God, fear Him, serve Him, obey Him, without telling others about Him? How can we love God, fear Him, serve Him, obey Him, without caring for the less fortunate?

God’s heart is for the most vulnerable—for the orphans and widows and poor and strangers.

He has told you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

But that’s not first.

Loving God is first.

Today I fear we’re going about things backwards. We are focused on programs and events, we’re challenged to do and to go, we’re encouraged to work and to serve. But where are the sermons about loving God?

Maybe more churches have pastors helping worshipers fall in love with God and His word. Maybe there’s a renewed interest in prayer groups. Maybe Bible studies are gaining traction again. Maybe Sunday evening church services are taking place in other parts of the country. I don’t know.

All I know is, if the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our being, why don’t we spend more time focused on loving God than on doing good works?

Published in: on October 28, 2016 at 7:10 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Christian, the Church, and Love for the “Brethren”

Elmhurst_CRC_1964_(3)When I was growing up, we used to reference love for “the brethren and the sisteren,” and I always thought that was such a fundamental Scriptural principle it didn’t need special attention.

That was before I started seeing the way some Christians treat others online. Eventually I ran into a group that defended unkind words directed at other Christians with whom they disagreed. I was floored.

Their central point was that false teachers need to be treated harshly, and to make their case they used several places in Scripture that talk about apostates and those spreading heresy. From there they looked to the way Jesus talked to the Pharisees, calling them snakes and white-washed tombs. Then there’s Paul telling the Galatians they are foolish and confronting Peter for his hypocrisy.

So are they right?

I don’t think so—not the way they use these verses as permission to mock or malign others. The handful of examples they give must be balanced by the preponderance of instruction telling Christians to treat each other, our enemies, all men, with love and/or consideration.

Some years ago, as I worked my way through the New Testament, I noticed over and over this theme of treating one another with love. In the gospels, the emphasis is on loving our neighbors and loving our enemies until we get to John. Jesus then makes His strong statements about Christians loving Christians so that the world will know we follow Christ.

John then drew the conclusion that love for the brethren (and sisteren 😉 ) is one sign that a person does in fact truly follow Christ:

  • By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another
    – 1 John 3:10-11 (emphases mine)
  • We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.
    – 1 John 3:14
  • Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
    – 1 John 4:7-8
  • Starting in Romans Paul fleshes out what it means to have love for the brethren, and for all men:

  • Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
    – Rom 12:11-18 (emphases mine)
  • Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
    – Rom 13:10
  • He gives a more lengthy explanation to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13), then includes instruction to love other Christians in a number of his other letters:

    • to the Galatians – “but through love serve one another”
    • to the Ephesians – “and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”
    • to the Philippians – “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment”
    • to the church in Colossae – “Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.”
    • to the church in Thessalonica – “and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you”
    • to Timothy – “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion”

    The writer to the Hebrews continues the theme:

      “Let love of the brethren continue.”

    As does James

      “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,’ you are doing well.”

    And Peter

      “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart”

    Believe it or not, these passages are nothing more than a representative sample. How can a Christian miss the fact that love for one another is central to true discipleship? As Paul said in 1 Thessalonians “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another.”

    Does Scripture tell us to stand against false teachers? From my study, I believe it does, but not to the exclusion of the clear command to love believers and all men, to be kind, to restore others with gentleness, to pursue peace with all men, to refrain from speaking against one another and many, many more similar indisputable relational instructions.

    So how did Christians bashing Christians or Christians bashing the Church or Christians bashing sinners—on the Internet or by letter or face to face—become something we believers seem to think is just fine?

    This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in August 2010.

    The Problem Is Sin

    Seattle_AtheistsIn the Theist/Atheist Facebook group I’ve mentioned from time to time, a question came up about faith (is it a virtue). One thing led to another and one person involved in the discussion said he had four problems with faith in the “christian god.” The first area he mentioned was sin. He said, in essence, that he rejects the idea of sin.

    I was shocked at first. This discussion took place just a week after the Florida shooting that killed 49 people at the Pulse, a gay bar in Orlando. I think, how can anyone watch the news and then turn around and say he doesn’t believe in sin?

    My only answer is that Satan, who Jesus described as the father of lies, has blinded the eyes of unbelieving people. The problem is so obviously sin.

    Society talks about love and tolerance, to the point that those topics have become almost trite. And yet, as if bringing an answer to the problem of violence or hatred or prejudice or terrorism—whatever was behind the actions of the Orland killer—several Broadway stars resurrected an old folk song from 1965 by Burt Bacharach: “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love.”

    Before this cry for love, God gave us the Law that serves as our tutor—showing us how impossible it is for us to act in a morally upright way day in and day out, every hour of every day.

    Jesus explained that God’s standard goes beyond the Law to include our attitudes as well as our actions. So lust makes us equivalent to adulterers, hate makes us as guilty as murderers. And yes, Jesus said, the law requiring an eye for an eye needs to be replace with love for our enemies.

    So when the world tells us we need love, they’re right.

    The problem is, they think love we somehow generate from within or already have but need to tap into, will be victorious over sin. If we love, we won’t be selfish any more. Or prideful. Or angry. Or greedy. Or lustful. Or power-hungry. Or jealous. Or vengeful.

    If we had this love or could learn to love other people, if that was all we needed, then why do bad things still happen? Even if we just figured out the benefit of love fifty years ago when the song first came out, shouldn’t we see some progress, if that’s all we need?

    In truth, the fact that we are still dealing with prejudice and hatred and corruption and all the other problems in our culture—abuse, pedophilia, sex trafficking, rape, identity theft, and more—is proof that sin is real. We should see some movement toward a better society, but what evidence is there for a positive change? We haven’t curbed alcoholism or drug addiction. We haven’t stemmed the growth and power of gangs. We haven’t replaced love for violence at any level. Kids still bully kids. Men still abuse women. Women still cheat on husbands. Takers continue to take.

    Why is that, if not sin? There is no explanation.

    Atheists have no explanation. I’ve asked before. Those who believe in evolution have no theory how society, which developed, they say, from the animal world, has taken on these evil tendencies.

    Because that’s the prevailing view: humankind is good but society corrupts. The question remains: when there were just a handful of evolved humans, were did their evil tendencies come from? The atheist formula—good people create a bad society—simply does not compute.

    The sad thing is, Christians have backed off from declaring the problem of sin. At some point the narrative accepted on most fronts was that “fire and brimstone” preaching was bad, that people shouldn’t be scared out of hell, that what would “win people to Christ” was to hear about His love and forgiveness.

    There’s a lot of truth it that approach. Paul wrote to Titus, explaining the saving work of God:

    But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

    So, yes, the catalyst for change is God’s kindness and love.

    But the atheist I mentioned from the Facebook group went on to say that the third thing he had against faith in God was salvation. He apparently doesn’t want it because he believes he doesn’t need it.

    That’s the place people end up if they believe they are good and don’t have a sin problem. Maybe we shouldn’t bring back fire and brimstone preachers, but we certainly should tell the truth about human nature.

    It’s hard for me to believe that anyone in the world would ever stand up and say, I’ve never had a wrong thought or done a wrong deed in my entire life. I’ve loved others as much as I love myself. Any such person would most likely be guilty of lying and of pride, so there goes the idea of good. Because in God’s way of accounting, “good” means “without any bad.”

    In our society we put good on a sliding scale. If we can say something is “mostly good,” then it’s good. Five stars. But even the best five-star people we know, still fall short of perfect. They know it. We know it.

    So why aren’t we coming to the obvious conclusion: the problem our world has is sin.

    Until we get a proper diagnosis, we’ll slap band-aids over incurable wounds.

    One more thing. Telling someone he is a sinner is not hateful. That’s like saying a doctor is hateful for telling someone he has cancer. Uh, no. Not. Hateful. Try, honest.

    We have spent too long in the faery land of Good Humanity, so we no longer recognize what stares us in the face every night on the local and national news: humans sin. We all sin. Everyone of us.

    It’s not hateful to admit that sinners sin. It’s not hateful to tell people there’s a Savior—One declaring Himself to be Love—who wants to rescue us from the mess of our own making.

    Published in: on June 22, 2016 at 6:16 pm  Comments (17)  
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    If I Speak With The Tongues Of Men And Of Angels

    The_Good_Samaritan008Love is an action, we theists insisted in February 2015. The atheists in our group who responded to the question, What is love, were all saying that love is a feeling.

    The difference shocked me. Apparently quite a bit separates our thinking, far more than what we believe about the existence of God. Apparently a Christian’s faith in God (I can’t speak for other theists), is the bedrock for a host of other beliefs: that love should be something we live out and offer to our neighbors, our enemies, our brothers and sisters in the faith; that the life of every human has value, no matter what the size of the body or the intellect; that sin is part of our DNA, part of being human; that judgment awaits; that there is life after life; and many more.

    That exchange about love, though, stuck with me. Then last week one of the conferees at the Orange County Christian Writers Conference showed me a project she’s working on. Suffice it to say that as she described the work to me, she said, No one today knows what love is.

    She’s right. Our culture has bought into the lie that love is nothing more than an emotion, not a commitment, not an action.

    I could end this post right there, except there’s a line in 1 Corinthians 13, often referred to as the Love Chapter, that got me to thinking. It’s verse 3: “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.”

    So what about loving being an action? I’d assume that giving everything I own to needy people meant I did love them. And surely surrendering my body to be burned . . . who would do that if someone they loved weren’t benefiting?

    I tried to imagine what it would look like for someone to do those sacrificial things and not love. I’m assuming there would be some other motive in play—perhaps self-righteous action intended to impress God or perhaps a church or whoever else might be watching. So even though the person would be giving up possessions, in their mind, they’d be gaining something they value more. It would be a deal, then, a trade off: I’ll do this good thing for these other people I don’t care about so that in turn I’ll get something of value from a higher power.

    I think our culture is pushing us into do-gooder mentality. We’re supposed to let Syrian refugees into the US or send money toward the earthquake relief effort in Japan or Ecuador or boycott North Carolinian businesses, not because we love Syrians or Japaneses or Ecuadorians or transgender people. If we did, surely we’d be boycotting all the Muslim nations who behead people who are homosexual.

    Our do-gooder mentality is all about us looking like we’re tolerant. Or not tolerant. It’s OK to hate the bigots, and the child molesters and wife beaters and cops who shoot innocent people, at least for those with the do-gooder mentality and not genuine love.

    God simply does not think like a do-gooder. He loves while we are yet sinners. Nobody has to clean up their act in order to be good enough for God to save them, and in fact none of us could pull that off. God also doesn’t have a list of acceptable sins—these are the ones He’ll save you from, those others mean you’re too far gone.

    I heard a great story on the news the other day. An African-American in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Jameel McGee, went to jail for something he didn’t do. Drug possession or selling drugs, I think. Some years later Andrew Collins, the white ex-cop who arrested him, admitted he’d falsified the report. He went to jail for his crimes, but got out and ended up working in the same faith-based employment agency as Jameel who he had wronged.

    Jameel said when he got out of prison, he initially wanted to hurt the ex-cop. But that didn’t happen. When they started working together, Andrew said he was wrong and sorry and asked for forgiveness. And that’s precisely what Jameel did because he’s a Christian man: he forgave the formerly corrupt cop. Now here’s the clincher: they have become friends and do speaking engagements together about forgiveness.

    Surprising, isn’t it. Forgiving our enemies sounds good when the enemy is at least locked behind bars. But here was a man who loved his enemy—the man standing right in front of him who had “cost him everything.”

    There’s love in action.

    And the world doesn’t understand it.

    Here are a few of the comments to this video (not all taken from the same site):

      * This man must not love and respect himself.

      * Sadly it’s just a sad case of lack of self worth uncle tom syndrome on the part of jameel mcgee.

      * we’d be enemies for life

      * Forgiveness is one thing. But forgiving someone who did sh@@ like that and then becoming FRIENDS???? H### no. Not happening.

      * Well you can keep that kind of peace and love

      * Individuals like this are NOT leaders, THEY are FOLLOWERS. Weak minded without a spine.

    The list goes on and on. I’m really shocked, honestly, and this is my post.

    Jesus Christ is the dividing line. People who believe in Him can then love like Him. Love is not a gooey feeling or a pie-in-the-sky wish for unknown people or even cash thrown at a problem in an attempt to make it better. All that stuff comes from noisy gongs or clanging cymbals.

    True love, the kind that Jesus said was the same as His love for us (John 13:34), will find the wounded stranger, who might actually be an enemy, and put him on our own donkey and take him where he’ll get help, paying extra if necessary. True love forgives shooters who sit in your church service before gunning down your friends and family in the name of racial hatred. True love grasps the hand of the former concentration camp guard in friendship and forgiveness. True love prays for the kidnappers who were responsible for the death of your husband.

    True love is not a product of the do-good society. It is the product of God’s true love being replicated in His children.

    Published in: on April 21, 2016 at 6:37 pm  Comments (2)  
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    God’s Great Christmas Gift

    Nativity_Scenes004My guess is that nine out of ten Christians would identify God’s great Christmas gift as His only Son, Jesus Christ. That’s not a wrong answer. After all, the Bible spells it out in John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . .”

    The thing is, God’s gift of Jesus was a means to an end, and it is this end that I think is the true Great Christmas Gift which God gave. The end I’m speaking of is reconciliation with God provided by God’s great grace which caused Him to send Jesus, to sacrifice Jesus, to accept Jesus and His death as payment for the insurmountable debt we owe because of our sin.

    In that regard, I can hardly write about Christmas without also writing about Christ’s death and resurrection. His coming was not the end of the story. It wasn’t even the beginning of it since God Himself foreshadowed Jesus’s role in setting to rights the devastation sin introduced into the world:

    “And I will put enmity
    Between you [Satan, in the guise of the serpent] and the woman,
    And between your seed and her seed;
    He shall bruise you on the head,
    And you shall bruise him on the heel.” (Gen. 3:15)

    God followed that first hint with promises and prophecies and types—people and sacrifices symbolizing the savior role. At the time of Jesus’s birth, then, the people of Israel—those who were faithful—were watching and waiting expectantly for Messiah.

    I suspect John the Baptist’s dad, Zacharias, had been praying for the coming Messiah. An angel of the Lord appeared to him and began his message by saying, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard” (Luke 1:13b). He went on to explain that his wife would give birth to a son who would be the forerunner of the Messiah.

    Many think Zacharias’s petition was for a son, but his response to the angel makes me think he was actually praying for the Messiah to come. The part about having a son, he doubted: “I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18b). Why would he pray for something he didn’t think could happen? More reasonable, I believe, is to understand his petition, and the answer Gabriel was announcing, to be for the coming of the promised Savior.

    Without a doubt the prophet Simeon had been waiting for the Messiah and had apparently received God’s promise that he wouldn’t die until he saw the Christ with his own eyes:

    “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace,
    According to Your word;
    For my eyes have seen Your salvation,
    Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
    And the glory of Your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

    So the first Christmas, the day we remember and celebrate as God come down in human form, is actually the middle of the story, the second book of the trilogy. Everything we identify as “because of Jesus” actually had its inception before the beginning of time. God purposed to save the lost by the means of the Incarnate Christ taking on the sins of the world.


    Because of His love and grace. Jesus come down from the throne of glory is the tangible representation of that love and grace.

    It’s sort of like parents giving their kids a Glo Wubble Ball or a Legos Jet or a Video WalkieTalkie or an art case or a knitting studio for Christmas—they give those gifts as an expression of their love.

    God’s gift of Jesus, of course, was more than an expression of love because He was also the means of His grace.

    Our relationship with God was irrevocably altered by sin. We could no longer enjoy God’s presence and friendship as before. Sin was and is this contagion that prevents fellowship with Holiness.

    As many non-Christians will tell you, they don’t even want to be around so much “goodness.” They think an eternity with God—and without their favorite sinful behaviors—is abhorrent.

    God in His grace knew what we needed. Even though many will deny they’re lost and disdain the idea of salvation, God knows what awaits us and what will satisfy the deepest longings of our heart.

    He has communicated His love through so many means. He demonstrated His love and grace through Noah who spent a hundred years preaching and building the ark that would save him and his family. That no one else responded is a human tragedy—one that could have been prevented if those people had only believed.

    God made a covenant with Abraham and promised to bless the world through his “seed,” his Descendant. God provided a way of escape from slavery for the whole nation of Israel. He raised up judge after judge to free the people from oppression brought on by their disobedience to Him. He established kings and inspired prophets, all because of His love and grace.

    God wants to be know, He wants us to know Him, He wants us to be in relationship with Him. That’s the end, the real gift: God Himself. His love and grace are gifts; Jesus is the great gift the first two initiated. But the real gift God wants us to have is the restoration of that friendship, that “knowing as we are also known” intimacy with God which sin interrupted. He wants us to be as we were intended to be—with ultimate and everlasting purpose and security and closeness to our Creator and Redeemer.

    Jesus came as a gift, yes. But He is a gift given because of the gift of love and grace; and He is the gift by which we may enjoy the end-game gift: God Himself.

    Published in: on December 22, 2015 at 5:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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    Who Does God Love?

    Advent Wk 3At Christmas, we highlight God’s love for humankind, evidenced by sending His only Son to take on flesh, and ultimately to bear the punishment for the sinners.

    On the surface, the question who God loves might seem simple. He loves the world. Which is true. We know this because John 3:16 tells us so, but also because Jesus commissioned His followers to make disciples “of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19, NASB). Luke records Jesus’s words in Acts 1:8b: “You shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”

    Those first disciples had walked with Jesus and listened to His teaching, watched Him be arrested and put to death, saw the place where He was buried, then witnessed the resurrected Christ walk into their room, talk with them, break bread, fix breakfast, and ascend into heaven. He left them with the command to tell everyone everywhere what they’d witnessed.

    Why would they go to places all over the world—and why would we who have inherited this commission—if God’s love didn’t extend to those in the remotest parts of the earth?

    But here “simple” comes to an end. Some believe the natural conclusion drawn from the fact that God loves the world is that God saves everyone: if you love ’em, you save ’em. This of course means the Paris terrorists are saved, the San Bernardino shooters are saved, Hitler is saved.

    There’s something in most of us that recoils at such an idea. We want “good people” saved, but not the heinous ones. We want to tell the world that God loves them, unless the people are trying to kill us. Those, we’d happily send to hell.

    But we’re an imperfect lot. Could it be that God loves Muslim terrorists, that if they were the only people in the world, He still would have sent His Son? And if so, does His love for them mean they are saved?

    I know—too many questions. Talking about God’s love should make us feel good, not feel confused. But God simply defies our every effort to confine Him with our own mores and understandings. He is Other, which means greater, more Perfect than we can imagine.

    The truth is, if God only loved the “good people,” He wouldn’t love any of us. None of us is good.

    We forget that when we stare into the face of people who embrace evil and call it good. Most of us regularly fight the evil inside us, and hence, we are loath to call it evil. We get angry or jealous or selfish or greedy or covetous. We lust, we envy, we betray our friends, our spouses. We gossip, we lie, we say mean things about our boss, our coworkers, our in-laws. And we think we’re good because we didn’t shoot anybody today.

    So who does God love—just the not so very bad, bad people?

    He says He loves the world.

    But in loving the world, is He therefore obligated to save everyone?

    God isn’t obligated to do anything our human understanding dictates He should do. He’s already laid out how salvation works (John 3:16 again): He loves, we believe, He gives everlasting life.

    The belief component is all important. Some people call this “easy believism” because they attach it to a false teaching Paul confronted in the New Testament. Some people thought that since they were “saved” or “in Christ” they could live however they wanted. After all, whatever sin they committed was forgiven, washed away by the blood of the Lamb.

    Just one problem there. If we truly believe something, it affects our lives. If we believe our car will be repossessed if we don’t make the payment, we aren’t apt to take that money and go to Vegas or on a shopping spree. We believe we’ll lose our car if we don’t make the payments, so it affects how we act.

    Husbands who believe their wives want something nice for Christmas act on that belief (to the best of their ability!) They would be foolish to say, Well, I didn’t get you a Christmas present this year because I bought myself some new golf clubs instead. His belief affects his actions, and wives all know this. So if he’s bought himself golf clubs, his actions demonstrate his true belief about his wife.

    So too in our relationship with God. If we say we believe that Jesus came as payment for my sin, but we keep on sinning, willfully, knowingly, with no intention of changing our sinful behavior, we are demonstrating that we don’t really believe.

    God loves, but we have fallen short of His glory, His holiness. All of us have. Everyone except Jesus Messiah. God doesn’t change His standards or go back on His word because He loves us. He declared from the beginning that rebellion carried a death sentence.

    Jesus, of His own free will, took our sin that we who believe might have everlasting life. We who believe look so much like those who don’t believe. Except little by little who we are inside is being reshaped to look more and more like Jesus.

    Those who don’t believe, those who say they believe by act in a way that shows they’re lying, have not escaped God’s love . . . or His wrath. In our human way of thinking, love and wrath seem incompatible. But Scripture leads me to believe they are not, when we’re talking about God. As I see it, God loves us so much, He isn’t going to force us to love Him back or to spend eternity with Him if we really hate Him. I’ve heard people say they’d rather be in hell than in heaven “with a God like that!” They hate Him.

    God’s going to let them walk away. But He is also going to punish sin, just as He said He would. Since they’ve rejected Jesus’s payment of their debt, there’s nothing left but for them to pay their own debt.

    So who does God love? The world! Absolutely. If only the world loved Him back.

    Published in: on December 17, 2015 at 7:35 pm  Comments Off on Who Does God Love?  
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    Love Doesn’t Come Softly

    Nativity_Scenes015I know, I know, the novel Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke and the movie made from it tell us that love does come softly, but I disagree, if for no other reason than that Jesus, God’s gift because of His love for the world, didn’t come into the world softly. No baby does.

    Of course, Jesus wasn’t just any baby, either. First, He left His heavenly home, His throne of glory, His place with the Father. Such a shattering change, taking on the likeness of men, couldn’t have been easy, and hardly seems “soft.”

    I don’t think Mary would have characterized anything about Jesus’s birth as “soft.” When the angel came to tell her she’d become pregnant, he first had to tell her not to be afraid. Then there were the months of pregnancy, with no husband—the worry that perhaps Joseph would not want to marry her; the dread of what her neighbors would think, and say; the loneliness of being pregnant without the shared experience of other expectant mothers; the trip to Bethlehem when she was eight months’ pregnant; finding no room where she could give birth to her baby.

    These could not have been easy, but mother love has a way of putting the needs of the child above her own thoughts of comfort and ease.

    Then there was the actual birth that first Christmas. I’m pretty sure Mary wouldn’t have said her love for her son came softly. Not during the pain of childbirth. In a manger. Away from home. Did she have a midwife to help with the delivery? Or did her betrothed step in and help her? Or was there a kind stranger who heard her cries and came to her side? Or was she alone? None of those would be easy or “soft.”

    Of course there were the shepherds who came later that night to worship her son. Yes, I imagine Mary was really up for company about then. And worship? Her son? Because of angels?

    Months later Mary and Joseph packed up and hurried out of town, headed for Egypt, in order to save the life of their little one. Such a journey, driven by the fear of not knowing if they’d be pursued, if they’d find a welcoming place to live, could not have been easy. I wouldn’t characterize it as a soft period in their lives.

    But ultimately Mary did lose Jesus. As the righteous, devout man Simeon prophesied when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple when he was a week old, Mary experienced the “sword piercing her own soul.”

    It was important for Mary to know that mothering the Messiah would not be all sweetness and light. It was both a great privilege and a great burden. (David Guzik, Study Guide for Luke 2 through Blue Letter Bible)

    Soft? Not really.

    So Christ’s example shows us that God’s love didn’t come softly, and we see that Mary’s love for Jesus didn’t come softly. Both came at great cost.

    The Apostle Paul, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, penned one of the enduring, oft-quoted passages about love. It’s beautiful, but primarily it sets down just how “not soft” love is:

    Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)

    Endures. Bears all things. Does not seek its own. These are not the ideas of Hollywood love that’s filled with personal pleasure. This love that Paul describes is hard. It’s all about putting others first.

    This love does not come softly. It comes from hard work, from sacrifice, from prayer, from discipline, from choosing to love even if feeling love isn’t there.

    God loved us while we were yet sinners. There was nothing in us to commend us to God. We were rebellious, prideful little tyrants, trying to tell God what He should do and on what basis we would be willing to give Him worship. In our unregenerate state, we are insufferable. And God loved us.

    That doesn’t come softly. It comes at great cost. And that’s the love God wants us to emulate:

    A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (John 13:34)

    I understand that Janette Oke’s book/movie had in mind the idea that love comes unexpectedly, as we walk through life together, sharing and working and helping one another. In the story, the two lonely people, the widow and widower who had agreed to create a household together for reasons other than love, found love. They weren’t looking for love, but softly, through the long winter, their hearts came together.

    It makes a wonderful, heartwarming story. A Hallmark story. I love a good romance, a happy ending. It’s just that, in truth, love—for a spouse or child or neighbor or coworker or boss or church member or in-law—takes work and commitment and perseverance. It is hard.

    Quite honestly, realizing how love is hard makes me appreciate God’s love so much more:

    But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy (Titus 3:4-5a)

    If God hadn’t loved, not a one of us would be saved.

    In fact, God as He reveals Himself in the Bible, is the only God among all the gods who loves those He made. Pagan gods, Hindu gods, the god of Islam, demand obedience and generate fear. The One True God shows Himself over and over as the God who provides, who rescues, who gives grace, who loves.

    There’s nothing soft about His love . . . except perhaps the receiving of it.

    Published in: on December 14, 2015 at 6:06 pm  Comments (5)  
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    Reprise: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

    When some people talk about Christians loving one another, they have in mind something akin to the secular idea of tolerance: we’re all supposed to accept other people where they are, how they are, regardless of what they believe. If it’s “true for them” than who am I to judge? The only belief that isn’t tolerated, it seems, is the one that says there is an authoritative right and wrong, a moral standard to which we all are accountable.

    Now I fear that this wolfish tolerance attitude has stolen into the church dressed up sheepishly as love.

    I fear this for two reasons. First, Christians have God’s direct command to love one another, but a false idea of what that love is can serve as an excuse to ignore Christ’s mandate. All Christians who aren’t exactly like me, then, don’t qualify as a brother I am to love, opening the door to partiality — something James speaks against unequivocally.

    I fear this false love taking up residence in our churches for another reason: it fosters an “anything goes” mentality. No longer will Christians pay attention to what the Bible says about various issues because love is more important than “petty” differences.

    Love is more important than petty differences, but what happens when “petty” becomes “any”? What happens when “petty” includes salvation, inspiration of Scripture, humankind’s sin nature, heaven and hell, the deity of Christ, the creation of the world, God’s role as a just judge, and any number of other beliefs clearly delineated in Scripture?

    I find it particularly interesting that in one of the great passages about unity in the church, where Paul compares us to a body, with various parts fitting together to make a functioning whole, he includes the importance of sound doctrine.

    And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (Eph. 4:11-16, [emphasis added]).

    So if we’re supposed to grow up into Christ, think for a moment about Christ and tolerance. Would we hear Him say, Can’t we all just get along? Not likely.

    I suspect He saw a good bit of bickering from His disciples. After all, they discussed who would be the greatest in the kingdom, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee tried to do an end-around to get her boys into privileged positions.

    That kind of self-promotion was the thing Jesus wanted them to do away with, I believe. Leadership was to mean servanthood, and the greatest was to get on his knees beside a basin of water to wash his brother’s feet.

    In contrast, nowhere do I see Jesus telling His disciples to take a soft stand on truth. Instead, He was rather in-your-face about the matter. He spoke regularly and authoritatively from Scripture, and His pronouncements divided people. He knew this would be the case.

    What He wanted, though, was those believing the truth to stand together, to serve each other, to look out for one another’s interests, not just their own.

    That’s the love the church needs, not the “Can’t we all just get along,” pseudo love the world calls tolerance. That’s the love that will let people know what “Christian” really means.

    This post, sans a few minor changes, first appeared here in June 2011.

    The Cost Of Loving A Neighbor

    The_Good_Samaritan007Once upon a time “roadside assistance” consisted of some kind stranger stopping to help a person in need. I grew up watching my dad pull over to help a needy motorist with a flat tire or to give him a lift to the nearest gas station.

    Once when we were crossing the desert (The Great American Desert, somewhere between Los Vegas and LA), my sister called for my dad to stop the car. She’d seen a little boy on the side of the road, she said. The “little boy” turned out to be a young man, but he was indeed out in the desert alone. With some hesitancy my dad agreed to invite him to join us.

    Those were, in fact, changing times, when hitchhikers might actually be robbers or worse. The common wisdom had shifted. Motorists were to be wary of strangers. Someone who looked like she was in need of help might actually be bait for nefarious schemers planning to take advantage of kindhearted people.

    More and more, “kindhearted people” began to disappear.

    Now it is news when a stranger acts selflessly on behalf of someone in need, when a “finder” doesn’t turn out to be a “keeper” but a “returner” instead.

    What society seemed to discover was that there was a cost to helping others. Not only were fewer and fewer willing to pay the price, we actually had public service announcements warning us not to try to be heroes. Don’t try to stop the robber or pick up the hitchhiker. Let the professionals handle it. Because getting involved is costly.

    Then came the day when Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York with thirty-eight witnesses ignoring her screams for help. She lived for fifty minutes after the first attack. A more recent retelling of the event suggests that only fourteen people actually witnessed the attack and that several phoned the police, to no avail. Still, the horrific event stirred people’s conscience and had them asking whether we had become too disconnected from each other.

    Some have even referred to the case as the antithesis to the Good Samaritan.

    Which is precisely the point.

    Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in answer to the question, Who is my neighbor? The story revealed that the hated Samaritan who went out of his way, spent his own money, risked his own life, made himself religiously unclean, was in fact the one who acted like a neighbor to the mugging victim.

    Loving a neighbor costs. Sometimes in rich western societies, it’s easy to throw money at hurting people. Certainly money can be a help to someone who can’t pay the rent or who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. But I wonder if that isn’t the easy out. We can write a check and don’t have to get our hands dirty or our schedule disrupted.

    The fact is, the needy person might not be a random stranger, but the person across the street. The help might be weekly visits to a lonely person or doing grocery shopping for someone elderly. It might be volunteering to mow a lawn or to take on the watering. It’s hard to think about adding someone else’s needs to our own already overly busy schedule. How can we possibly love our neighbors as we love ourselves when we really don’t have time to do all we know we should be doing in our own family? After all, love costs, and sometimes the price just seems too high. After all, those people across the street are strangers . . .

    Published in: on August 14, 2015 at 6:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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    The Compelling Quality Of Love

    People write songs about love — usually the romantic kind — and make it the centerpiece of a great deal of fiction. Christ said there is one chief commandment but another close behind, and both of them involve love.

    Paul narrowed things down to faith, hope, and love, only to conclude that the greatest of those is love.

    Jesus said the greatest love was for someone to give his life for another:

    Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

    Donald Maass in his writing instruction book Writing The Breakout Novel identified two character qualities that “leave a deeper, more lasting and powerful impression of a character than any other” (pp. 121-122). One trait is forgiveness and the other self-sacrifice.

    Maass, who to my knowledge doesn’t profess to be a Christian, went on to say, ” As for self-sacrifice, is there a higher form of heroism? It is the ultimate expression of love and as such is about the most powerful action a character can perform” (p. 122 – emphasis mine).

    Love draws us. It lures us and entices us, woos us and wins us. We are moths to its flame. If we can’t look away from an accident, we can’t stay away from love. It is compelling.

    The world is moved by amazing love. Some years ago Kent Whitaker, a man I met at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference, appeared on Oprah to talk about Murder By Family, the book he’d recently published.

    Kent’s wife and son had been murdered and he himself had been wounded in the attack. In the days that followed, he came to realize that he needed to forgive the man who had taken those he loved. Only later did he learn that this person was his surviving son.

    What caught Oprah’s interest in his story? Was it the irony? The tragedy? Or was it the amazing forgiveness of a man who knew himself to stand in need of forgiveness too.

    Oprah Winfrey used Kent Whitaker’s story to highlight forgiveness even under the worst possible scenario. If Kent Whitaker could forgive his son for murdering his family then surely we can learn to forgive those who’ve done much lesser evils. (from “Kent Whitaker on the Oprah Show”)

    But this brings us to the point I want to make. As compelling as love is, trying harder doesn’t make it possible for us to forgive.

    Corrie ten Boom testified to this when she came face to face, after World War II and during her talk on forgiveness, with one of the guards involved in her Nazi internment.

    Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

    And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course — how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

    But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

    ‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.

    ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out — ’will you forgive me?’

    And I stood there — I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven — and could not forgive. (excerpt from The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom)

    Of course the story doesn’t end there. Corrie could not forgive, but God did. What’s more, He could provide Corrie with the wherewithal to forgive as well, and He did that too.

    And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

    And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

    ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

    For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then. (excerpt from The Hiding Placeemphasis mine)

    Love is compelling, but a self-sacrificial act or the forgiveness offered to the sinner who has wronged us does not come from within the human heart. We can’t try harder. We can’t learn it through a twelve step program or even follow the example of someone else who’s forgiven greater things than we know.

    What comes naturally to us is pay back. When we’ve given as good as we got, then we’ll forgive. But that’s not forgiveness at all. That’s retribution.

    Sometimes we’ll “forgive” because we’re not the one who suffered. We think it’s time to let a criminal out of jail because he’s getting old and probably won’t hurt anyone any more. So out of a magnanimous sense of mercy we let the prisoner go free. Apart from the most general sense of being wronged because we’re part of the society whose laws were broken, we’re not the injured party and therefore not in a position to actually forgive.

    It seems to me, the best we can do humanly speaking is tolerance. We don’t have in us the selfless kind of love that sacrifices or forgives, so we tolerate. And we preach tolerance as if it is an answer to the hate of the world.

    It’s not. Love is the answer. And there’s only one source of true love. He who knew no sin, He who gave Himself up for us all. He who IS, also is love.